Thursday, October 25, 2012

An epic in bite-sized chunks

The eagerly awaited adaptation of Cloud Atlas boasts a large cast, carloads of make-up, six major stories, nearly three hours worth of visual bravura and a variety of amusements. Transcendence? That's another story.
First, the good news: For a movie that's two hours and 52 minutes long, Cloud Atlas does not present viewers with an endurance test. That's no small accomplishment.

Directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, the movie probably shouldn't work at all. It alternates (not always elegantly) between six stories in six different genres, involves actors playing multiple roles, tests the limits of make-up artistry and tries to wrap things up with a cosmic bang that makes room for a string of woozy ideas about reincarnation, the connectedness of all life, the elasticity of boundaries and more.

By any measure, this lavishly conceived adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 novel should be breaking out in flop sweat before it hits the 30-minute mark. The fact that it doesn't stands as testimony to the skill, commitment and ambition of the Wachowskis (still best known for their Matrix movies) and to Tykwer, who made his biggest mark with Run Lola Run.

The most enjoyment I got out of Cloud Atlas involved trying to identify the various actors in their multiple guises as the movie fragmented into mini-hunks of narrative spread over a half-a-dozen settings and time periods -- from 1846 to a post-apocalyptic future.

The stories in Cloud Atlas are told by an aged tribesman named Zachry (Tom Hanks) and are presented as a massive campfire tale with mythic and spiritual overtones. All stories are one story -- or something to that effect. You can tell that the two Wachowskis and Tykwer are after something big, but Cloud Atlas seems to work best in small doses, as its many stories unfold.

A brutal comic high point arrives when Hanks (as the lower-class author of a book called Knuckle Sandwich) tosses an imperious British critic off the roof of a skyscraper during a book party.

In fairness to critics, I should point out that there probably are at least as many filmmakers worthy of such treatment as critics, but that's another story.

If you're unfamiliar with the book, a quick idea about a few of its stories. The tale involving the author of Knuckle Sandwich focuses on Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a publisher who gets crosswise with a brother who imprisons him in an institution for the aged.

Then there's the futuristic story in which a genetically engineered beauty called a fabricant (Doona Bae) is rescued from a life of servitude by Hav-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess). Bae's character is then propelled into a leadership position in a revolt against an oppressive regime of elites. The year: 2144. And, yes, it's just here that the movie tips its hat to Soylent Green, the 1973 visit to dystopia starring Charlton Heston.

There's even an appearance by the devil himself (Hugo Weaving), who tries to lure Zachry to the dark side by encouraging his baser instincts and by over-acting.

I won't recount all the stories, but will say that they seem intended to make a point that goes something like this: In the eternal recurrence of everything, reincarnated beings keep playing different roles in different dramas, all of which build toward last-minute escapes that, in this movie, can seem more corny than profound.

Speaking of profundity. The screenplay (also by the movie's directorial trio) takes a long time before advancing a variety of spiritual points that seem to have been sprinkled over the movie's dialog like fairy dust. I don't think it's possible to take them as seriously as the movie seems to want us to take them.

If I were going to be a little more arch about it, I'd say that thematically, Cloud Atlas is a bit like climbing the world's highest mountain in search of an ultimate truth only to find a Port A Potty at the summit. The reward isn't nearly as loft as you'd hoped, but why be arch? Could get you thrown off a roof.

The cast is large and, for the most part, effective. If you get bored, you can play a game called, Trying to Spot Hugh Grant, who in several scenes has been made to look nothing like himself.

You also can express gratitude to the movie gods that Halle Berry, in a variety of roles, seems to have subdued her instincts for overdoing things. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, but the rest of the cast includes Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy, Ben Whishaw, David Keith and many more actors of varying pay grades.

Credit Weaving for outdoing Louise Fletcher in a Nurse Ratched-like role, part of the segment in which Broadbent's publisher character (remember him?) is confined to an asylum.

Fans of the Matrix should be mollified by the ways in which the Wachowskis have created Neo-Seoul, the city in which the futuristic scenes of 2144 take place.

In a segment set in 1975, you can discover what Hanks looks like with blonde hair, not necessarily a revelation but a minor curiosity nonetheless.

Strictly in movie terms, the trio of talented directors messes up the pacing of the final scenes, which (at least to me) felt as if they should have concluded about 15 minutes before they actually did. But there's no denying the Wachowskis and Tykwer also whip up some magical images. If nothing else, the movie tends toward visual opulence, some of it expressed with wit.(See below).

So what the hell am I saying here? I guess I'm saying that there's plenty to enjoy in this over-stuffed cornucopia of a movie, but if you're looking for transcendent cinema, you may be disappointed. For all its ambition, Cloud Atlas -- like much of life -- is entertaining only in parts. Is it damning with faint praise to say that rather than stirring my emotions or elevating my consciousness, this extra-large helping of movie mostly amused me?

A heartbreaking Iranian fable

Is it an art object or a movie? Chicken with Plums takes its time creating sad beauty.
Nasser Ali-Khan is a world-class violinist. But when his wife -- in a fit of rage -- breaks his violin, he stops playing. Nasser finds a replacement violin, but he can't find the spirit required to resume his brilliant career.

As the Iranian movie -- Chicken With Plums -- unfolds, we learn that Nasser's problems extend back to the days before he was unhappily married with children. You see, Nasser loved a young woman like he'd never loved anyone before or since. And she loved him back.

But -- as cruel fate would have it -- the young woman's father refused to let his daughter squander her life with a musician who might not be able to support her. Nasser moved on, but he left his heart behind.

So goes the story told by directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, who previously directed the brilliant animated film Persepolis. This time, the directing duo mixes live action and animation for a story that's at once sad and invigorating.

The sadness stems from Nasser Ali-Khan's slow march toward death. The invigoration derives from the intoxicating mixture of realism and artifice that makes Chicken with Plums special, a sobering look at the many consequences resulting from the day that Nasser was denied the love of his life, a woman named Iran (Golshifteh Farahani).

As played by Mathieu Amalric, Nasser comes across as a deeply embittered soul who battles with his wife (Maria de Medeiros), the woman he married when he knew he couldn't have Iran. His wife tries to please him, even cooking his favorite dish, the chicken with plums of the movie's title.

But there's no pleasing Nasser, who eventually takes to his bed, vowing to languish there until he expires.

The ingredients of this fanciful fable are deeply melodramatic, but the movie ripples with humor, and it's so obviously creative that it sweeps you away with a story that involves flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks.

Based on a graphic novel by Satrapi, the movie makes a place for the Angel of Death (Edward Baer), a character that eventually catches up with Nasser, not a terribly difficult task because Nasser is not trying to outrun his end.

Spread over eight days, the story takes us through the pivotal events in Nasser's life, including his relationship with his mother (Isabella Rossellini), a woman who pushes him toward marriage.

Because of its exaggerated stylistic flourishes, Chicken with Plums sometimes feels as if it's easier to appreciate than to fully embrace, but when the movie draws to a close, it leaves you with a sweet sadness, honey laced with tears.

Our crazy health-care system

I had little initial interest in Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, a documentary about the American health care system. I expected another politically motivated screed devoted to ripping the Affordable Care Act, which has been pejoratively tagged as Obamacare, a name so widely used even the president seems to have accepted it. I was relieved to discover that Escape Fire doesn't focus on the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act, but instead tries to take a more sweeping look at the underlying assumptions of American health care. The documentary begins by reminding us that there's something terribly alarming about a health care system that requires an expenditure of $2.7 trillion a year, as it did in 2011. Escape Fire also argues that we're not getting our money's worth. Directors Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke -- through a series of cogent interviews and well-selected examples -- try to emphasize "out-of-the-box" approaches to health care. They build much of the movie around arguments advanced by two well-known health proponents: Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Dean Ornish: We tend to treat disease rather than working to foster health. One of the most striking examples in the film involves the pressures faced by physicians in a system in which reimbursement is based on per-visit treatment. Dr. Erin Martin, a primary-care doc, quits her job in Oregon because she's expected to see more patients and spend less time with each of them. The directors also draw on examples from the military -- the story of a soldier wounded in Afghanistan is especially revealing -- and point an accusatory finger at pharmaceutical companies that benefit from a drug-happy society in which too many believe that all health solutions can be found in small plastic bottles. Well-informed audiences may not find anything strikingly new here, and a movie such as Escape Fire poses a steep commercial challenge. Will escape-hungry audiences shell out hard-earned dollars for what amounts to an educational experience? Those who do should leave the theater with plenty to ponder.

America's losing war on drugs

My taste for drug-riddled crime movies may be far too indulgent. Perhaps it's time that I stopped viewing such movies (the British movie Pusher qualifies as a recent example) as viable forms of entertainment. I reached no conclusions, but thought about the matter while watching Eugene Jarecki's potent new documentary The House I Live In. Jarecki has taken a persuasive look at ravages inflicted on many Americans by the country's apparently endless and extremely costly war on drugs. Some of the movie's tilt derives from Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander, who teaches law at Ohio State University, is interviewed in Jarecki's movie, along with many others, including David Simon. (The title of Alexander's book gives you a decent idea of where she stands.) Before creating The Wire, Simon reported on cops and crime in Baltimore, which is to say he has been a war correspondent in America's battle against drugs. Jarecki began the movie when he decided to learn more about Nannie Jeter, a woman who worked for his family as a housekeeper in New Haven, Conn. Jarecki says he thought of Jeter as a kind of second mother. As it turns out, Jeter lost a drug-addicted son. Jarecki effectively lifts his movie from the anecdotal to the global, augmenting the movie's personal focus with lots of beefy information about the ways in which the drug war has masked consequences that have ravaged minority communities and, more recently, working class white communities. I don't know if it's fair to go quite as far as someone such as Simon, who calls the drug war a slow holocaust, but there's little question that the U.S. war on drugs -- which has been going on longer than any other war the country has fought -- has been a failure, leading mostly to the creation of a profitable prison-based economy that keeps a variety of small towns thriving and also has led to the establishment of private corrections firms. In the face of the failure of so many of its stated goals, it's difficult not to wonder why the drug war persists. This steadfast commitment to failed policy makes the conclusions Jarecki reaches powerfully plausible -- and deeply unsettling.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sex, sweat and lots of humidity

Overwrought Paperboy goes way south

Director Lee Daniels's new movie The Paperboy, an adaptation of a 1995 Peter Dexter novel, sweats its way through a densely packed and lurid story that can seem both pungent and preposterous -= not to mention a trifle repellent.

What did Daniels have in mind? A wallow in southern-fried sleaze? A story about misapplied justice? A display of weird sexual tension? An opportunity for Zac Efron to spend time lolling about in his underwear?

Daniels, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dexter, dips into a vat full of Southern Gothic ingredients and scoops them onto the screen without straining them through the filter of a carefully developed narrative. What you get are large, often indigestible hunks of movie. The Paperboy is all gristle.

Daniels laces the humid Florida air with several narrative threads. A crusading journalist (Matthew McConaughey) tries to free a convict (John Cusack) who may have been wrongly convicted of murdering a sadistic sheriff. A slatternly woman (Nicole Kidman) corresponds with the convict, believing she has found a soul mate. The journalist's younger brother (Efron) falls for Kidman's Charlotte Bless, seeing himself as her protector.

The actors in The Paperboy are drenched in so much humidity that the movie can feel as it's taking place in a swamp. Of course, some of it does take place in swampy Florida backwaters. The time: 1969.

McConaughey plays Ward Jansen, a Miami reporter who travels to a small Florida town accompanied by a defiant black writing partner (David Oyelowo).

Efron's Jack Jansen, Ward's brother, lives with his father (Scott Glenn) and stepmother (Nealla Gordon). Jack takes advice from the family maid (Macy Gray), a woman who seems to have supplied him with the only form of maternal love he has known. Add a few Oedipal overtones, stir gently and you've got the relationships between Jack and Gray's character.

Gray's Anita Chester narrates the film, but her guidance doesn't help Daniels to keep the narrative from confusion, particularly in the early going when the movie's who's-who list has yet to sort itself out.

Kidman, who embraces her character's slutty vivaciousness, certainly doesn't need to prove her courage, but The Paperboy reminds us that she's up for almost anything. Here, she shares a scene with Cusack (a jailhouse visit) in which both characters engage in some kind of psychic sexual interchange that leaves them damp. The two journalists and Jack, who are also present, look on with amazement. So, probably, will you.

In another scene, Kidman's character urinates on Efron's Jack, apparently to relieve a severe allergic reaction to a jellyfish sting.

For Cusack, The Paperboy marks a stretch; maybe he has a future playing crude men with IQs that seem to dip below the scorching Florida temperatures. He's convincingly raw and frightening.

Daniels always seems to be pushing too hard, and, as he showed in Precious, he often carries things too far. Let's just say that there have been kinder views of McConaughey than the one that shows his naked posterior in a motel room.

But wait: There's more. When Ward and Jack visit a swamp-dwelling miscreant in search of evidence that might help liberate Cusack's character, we watch as the man slices open an alligator and lets its innards fall to the dirt. Oh well, at least Daniels didn't ask anyone to eat the slimy entrails.

If you're looking for something something febrile, the finale of The Paperboy won't disappoint. The same goes for much of the movie's beginning and its middle.

The actors are all game and committed, but Daniels too often leaves them wallowing in this sty of a story. Watching The Paperboy can be like watching someone drown in a bucket of sweat.

Lost in the Yorkshire moors

A classic story loses its luster in this edition of Wuthering Heights.
For people of a certain age, Wuthering Heights typically means two things: an Emily Bronte novel encountered in musty public-school classrooms or a black-and-white 1939 film starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, seen mostly on small, black-and-white television screens during the 1950s.

Although Bronte's novel -- published in 1848 and set mostly in late 1700s -- has been dramatized by others, it's impossible for me to get William Wyler's 1939 version out of my mind. Watching Wyler's movie some 20 years after it was released, I found myself marveling at the movie's mixture of cruelty, passion and romance. I must have been about 16.

Now comes another version of Bronte's tale, this one from director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank). Replacing Olivier and Oberon -- who were great luminous stars -- are James Howson and Kaya Scodelario, actors who bring a measure of dreary anonymity to these signature roles.

Howson and Scodelario play Heathcliff and Cathy as adults; Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer portray them as the youngsters they were when Cathy's father (Paul Hilton) brought Heathcliff to the Yorkshire heath after finding him adrift in wretched urban poverty.

Heathcliff -- played in this leaden version by two black actors -- is supposed to fit perfectly into his natural surroundings. Brooding and shorn of social pretense, Heathcliff's soul can howl like the winds that whip across the moors, something Olivier conveyed better than either of the actors in Arnold's movie.

Having decided to immerse the story in the mud of 18th century naturalism, Arnold goes wrong almost from the start. We don't turn to Wuthering Heights for brutally accurate depictions of 18th century British country life or for scenes that take place in gravely darkened rooms. We turn to Bronte's story for the yearning and romantic pull that's tempered by Heathcliff's scorching hatreds and Cathy's blithe neglect of his near-preternatural devotion.

This time, the moors seem as bleak as they are wild and tumultuous. Arnold tries to take the story into primal terrain, but the movie's sodden naturalism robs it of energy.

The major events of the novel are present in Arnold's adaptation: Heathcliff is reviled by Mr. Earnsaw's cruel son (Lee Shaw); Cathy eventually matures and marries Edgar Linten (James Northcote), a gentrified neighbor; Linten's sister (Nichola Burley) tries to give Heathcliff the love he craves, but he can't accept her affections. Cathy dies. Her spirit haunts poor Heathcliff and the moors.

By miring the story in the harsh realities of rural English life, Arnold doesn't revivify the material; she nearly destroys it, allowing the story to plod along as if it were wearing heavy work boots. This version of Wuthering Heights sinks more than it soars.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

'Argo,' one of the year's best

An entertaining new thriller from Ben Affleck tells a far-fetched but true story.
The new thriller Argo -- impressively directed by Ben Affleck -- brims with fakery, much of it deadly serious.

Affleck perfectly blends a near-satirical take on Hollywood hucksterism with a pulse-pounding thriller about the rescue of six Americans who were hiding in the Canadian ambassador's home in Tehran after the 1979 start of the Iran hostage crisis.

Argo revolves around a plan so bizarre, it almost requires extra suspension of disbelief. But wait. That's not entirely true. Though enhanced for entertainment purposes, Argot tells a true story.

In it, Tony Mendez (Affleck), a skilled CIA agent, poses as a Canadian money man to cook up a scheme in which he'll fake the making of a major Hollywood movie. Mendez will then enter Iran, claiming that he's on a location-scouting mission.

The fake movie -- called Argo -- supposedly requires arid backdrops for its Star Wars-like story. It's also supposed to serve as a cover for the escaping hostages, who'll pretend they're part of the movie's crew.

Lacking any other ideas for rescuing the six Americans, the CIA adopts what it considers "the best bad idea" available.

Skillfully using real footage throughout, Affleck begins with a quick prologue tracing the rise and fall of the Shah and his replacement by Ayatollah Khomeini. This refresher course sets the table for a movie that spans improbable psychic distances: from Washington to Hollywood to Istanbul to Tehran.

Affleck brings frightening power to the moment when Iranian throngs overrun the U.S. embassy, allowing us to experience what it might be like to find ourselves in the midst of a hostile crowd fueled by its idea of righteous anger. The storming of the embassy is as harrowing as some of the Hollywood scenes are amusing.

For the record, the mob held 52 Americans hostage in the trampled U.S. embassy while the six Americans on which the movie focuses made their way to the Canadian ambassador's home.

Affleck receives whip=smart support from John Goodman, as savvy Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, a specialist in prosthetics, and from Alan Arkin, as the cynical producer of the fake film.

If there's any justice, Arkin's performance as Lester Siegel will earn him an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category. Is there anyone better at making a wisecrack sound like the unassailable voice of experience?

The movie's other stand-out performance belongs to Bryan Cranston, Mendez's boss at the CIA, a Washington-based agent who must fight his way through various obstacles to provide Mendez with the back-up he needs to make his crazy plan work.

Chris Terrio's screenplay recognizes that people under extreme duress often try to cover their stress with humor. When Siegel says he wants a credible script, he reinforces the point by insisting that if he's going to make a fake movie, it damn well better be a fake hit.

The Hollywood scenes are entirely justified because the success of Mendez's scheme depends on establishing the aura of a credible production. The assumption is that the Iranians will check to see whether Argo qualifies as the real deal. It costs the CIA $15,000 to option the Argo script, which has been languishing in turn-around.

I don't know how much liberty the screenplay takes with real events, but Affleck wisely engineers the movie for maximum suspense, tightening the screws of tension as he goes.

The only performance that gave me any pause was Affleck's. Bearded and sporting 70s length hair, Affleck tends toward unmodulated seriousness. Maybe it makes sense: As the movie's director, he probably didn't want to dominate a story that has lots of moving parts.

I don't think there's false note in Argo until an ending that has Mendez reuniting with his estranged wife. Perhaps Affleck felt the movie needed an epilogue to balance with the prologue that began it.

But considering how much has been accomplished prior to that, why quibble? Argo reminds us of what we should expect from a lot more mainstream movies: terrific stories told with insight and style.

One psychopath too many?

A movie that criticizes itself as it goes along, but is most notable for its wild performances.
Generally speaking, one psychopath should be enough for any movie. That rule, however, doesn't apply if you're writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and you're determined to make movie devoted to the principle that nothing succeeds like excess.

To say that Seven Psychopaths is over-plotted misses the point because the point is a ton of over-plotting that propels a large cast of characters through one wild scenario after another.

To keep the movie percolating, McDonagh has hired an ace cast of oddball actors: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken, all of whom have plenty of offbeat credibility.

The result is a Los Angeles-based movie that hums along, dropping in stories within stories, tying them all together in scenes that take place in the desert and find the characters debating over how to conduct a proper gun battle.

Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter who has a title for movie -- Seven Psychopaths -- but no story to go with it. His pal Billy (Rockwell) seems to know a good deal about psychopathy and offers to help.

As it turns out, Billy runs a dog-stealing racket with his buddy Hans (Walken), a strangely philosophical fellow whose wife (Linda Bright Clay) has been hospitalized for cancer.

Harrelson enters the story as a mobster whose dog -- a Shih Tzu named Bonny -- has been stolen by Billy.

The screenplay makes room for appearances by Harry Dean Stanton (as a Quaker who's trying to avenge his daughter's death); Long Nguyen (as a Vietcong veteran seeking revenge for the May Lai massacre), and Tom Waits (as a guy who -- along with his girlfriend -- played by Amanda Warren -- sets out to eliminate as many serial killers as possible). Did I mention that Waits appears in almost all of his scenes carrying a bunny?

True to its hip nature, the movie contains dollops of self-criticism. At one point, Hans complains about the the way women tend to be shortchanged in these kinds of movies. Too bad he's right because one of these women is Abbie Cornish, who plays the girlfriend who junks Marty early in the film. Gabourey Sidibe (familiar from Precious) has a cameo as a woman Harrelson's character tries to blame for losing his dog.

For once, it's not Walken who gives the movie's most outrageous performance. That honor goes to Rockwell, who's playing a wacked-out guy with enough lose screws to fill ten trash pails. That's not to say that Waken doesn't quietly walk off with his share of scenes, probably because he's smart enough not to try to out-wacko Rockwell.

Seven Psychopaths is fun -- until it isn't, and it requires a high tolerance for self-conscious writing, for performances that try a bit too hard to be outlandish and for the kind of movie-mad post-modernism that makes its hipness as difficult to ignore as a loud tie.

McDonagh's movie can be seen as a satirical take on violent genre movies, as a violent genre movie or as a movie that, in its best moments, makes you laugh in spite of yourself.

'Sinister' falls short of great horror

A crime writer finds a story that's more than he bargained for.
A moderately successful author specializing in true crime books, moves to a small Pennsylvania town to investigate mysterious deaths in a family and the disappearance of their young daughter.

That's the set-up for Sinister, a horror movie that arrives in theaters bolstered by a fair number of positive early reviews. But for my money, Sinister undermines itself in ways that limit the power of its creepiness.

To begin with, it's highly unlikely that an author (played here by an overworked Ethan Hawke) of crime books would bring his wife and two school-aged children on a venture that requires him to deal with a ton of grisly material or that he would knowingly move into the house where the apparent crime occurred. In the movie, he does both.

Of course, that's precisely where Sinister wants to put Hawke's Ellison Oswalt. Why? Because as soon as Oswalt and his family move in, he finds a projector and a box full of Super-8 movies in the attic.

These home movies (another addition to the ever-growing found footage genre) show a variety of gruesome murders, beginning with the hanging of four members of the family that previously occupied the house.

Another movie shows a different family being bound, locked in their car with gas cans and set on fire. You get the idea: Each film provides a record of a horrific crime.

Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has made a haunted house movie in which you may find the ghosts of previous horror. Sinister ends on a satisfactorily creepy note -- in no small part due to Christopher Young's eerie score -- but breaks little new ground either as psychologically-based horror or as a cautionary tale about the dangers of watching carnage on film.

On camera constantly, Hawke does his best to create a character who says he's after justice but who really longs for fame and fortune. Hawke's Oswalt thinks that the footage he's found in the attic will help him achieve his goal. He tells his wife (Juliet Rylance) that he's stumbled onto his In Cold Blood.

Movies such as Sinister require the presence of an expert on the occult. Vincent D'Onofrio portrays Sinister's version of that character, adding one fresh wrinkle. Oswalt and D'Onofrio's character never meet; they communicate via Skype.

James Ransone deserves mention for a nicely understated turn as a slightly goofy deputy who offers to help Oswalt with his research.

Let me tell you why I eventually stopped trying to suspend what was left of my crumbling disbelief. Whenever Oswalt suspects that an intruder has invaded his home during the night, he grabs a baseball bat and wanders around darkened rooms.

I get it. Derrickson obviously wants to make things as scary as possible, but please. The first thing we expect any person to do when investigating a possible intruder is (you guessed it) turn on the lights.

Sinister may be better made than the usual run of horror movies, and you almost can feel it trying to distinguish itself from the saw-and-gore pack. It's not without scares, but it's nothing to scream about, either.

Deepak Chopra remains elusive

Deepak Chopra, the Indian-born author of some 19 New York Times bestsellers, abandoned a prestigious career in medicine (he taught at Tufts and Harvard) to become one of the world's best known gurus, as well as the head of a Chopra-centered empire that seems to be based on a mixture of commercial savvy and spiritual eclecticism.

No one can accuse Chopra of being out-of-step with a media-driven society. He's a cable TV regular, the producer of a cosmically oriented video game and a New Age icon.

No question, Chopra could be the subject of a fascinating documentary, but Decoding Deepak, a film made by Chopra's son, Gotham, is not that movie. Although Gotham tags along with his father during a visit to a Thai monastery and although he shows that his wealthy dad has a taste for first-class hotels, it's difficult to watch Decoding Deepak without wondering whether Gotham has the stomach for a rigorous examination of his father's life and beliefs.

The so-called "contradictions" in Chopra's life -- he may be as addicted to his BlackBerry as any busy executive -- hardly seem definitive. Why not enjoy a good hotel and also be interested in spirituality? Impoverished people aren't necessarily saints, and rich men are as likely to be sagacious as anyone else.

It's interesting to see Chopra's fancy retreat center in Sedona, Ariz. and to watch as Chopra navigates what appears to be a media-dominated life, but Gotham doesn't do enough to examine his father's ideas and beliefs.

Chopra's assertion that he neither has been born nor will die -- an idea borrowed from Buddhism -- comes off as hollow without some real explanation. It also would have been nice to hear from a few of Chopra's critics.

Despite intriguing informal glimpses of a famous man, the movie doesn't probe deeply enough to bring us true understanding of either Chopra or his views.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Tim Burton's short gets longer

A skimpy but often rewarding Frankenweenie
In Frankenweenie, director Tim Burton makes his 1984 short film of the same name longer. Although the result can feel a bit undernourished, Frankenweenie definitely has some splendid moments, many of them a trifle macabre.

Shooting in comforting black and white and skillfully employing the techniques of stop-action animation, Burton tells a story based on familiar horror tropes that he gathers like weird flowers placed into an oddly shaped bouquet.

The story introduces us to Victor Frankenstein (voice by Charlie Tahan), a boy who's having difficulty accepting the loss of his beloved dog Sparky, a happy but hapless pooch that fell victim to an on-coming car.

As it turns out, Victor has an inventive streak, not to mention an attic full of contraptions that look as if they were lifted from the set of any number of low-rent, 50s sci-fi movies.

What's a grieving boy to do? In a Tim Burton movie, he heads to the pet cemetery to dig up poor Sparky, and -- thanks to the revivifying power of lightning -- he reanimates his dearly departed four-legged companion.

Victor learned about the amazing powers of electricity from Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), a substitute science teacher with a slightly ghoulish voice and Transylvanian accent.

To add complexity, Victor and some of his classmates also are competing in their school's science fair. This leads to a wholesale series of reanimations that wreak havoc on the town of New Holland, allowing Burton to bring creature-feature flare to the proceedings.

A giant mutant turtle tramples its way through town in Godzilla-like fashion. A prissy pet cat transforms into a creature that looks like a terrifying cross between a bat and a cat. Sea-monkeys proliferate, creating rampage-like chaos.

All of this because a toothless outcast kid named Edgar 'E' Gore (Atticus Shaffer) connives to use Victor's secrets to his own advantage, pointing the way toward one of the movie's more didactically expressed lessons.

Pay attention here, kids: Whether science is used for good or ill depends on who's doing the using.

Additional voices include Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara as Victor's mom and dad. Winona Ryder voices a girl who's staying with her uncle the mayor, who lives next door to Victor and frets about dogs that trample his flowers.

Burton knows how to create visual magic, and he's proven himself adept at playing with pop culture in ways that are clever and sometimes darkly funny. In this case, he's recycling the conceits of 1930s Frankenstein movies, right down to the bolts in Sparky's neck. They're used to attract the electric current that brings the poor pooch back to life.

My only real complaint about Frankenweenie involves its ending. For a time, I thought that Burton was going to have some fun and then show us how a child can come to grips with a devastating loss, but the movie's ending cops out on a difficult truth and keeps Frankenweenie from saying something that really could have been helpful to kids.

Parents should know that kids who have a less offbeat sense of humor than Burton may find the movie a bit disturbing. I appreciated the stylishness of Frankenweenie, and give Burton credit for being interested in the kind of antique horror that can seem almost quaint -- at least in these days of graphically splashed violence and gore.

If I really were going to push another point, I might say that it's past time for Burton to stop trying to reanimate the playthings he finds in his pop-cultural toy chest. But I'll leave that for another day.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Another careless action movie

Taken 2 spreads incoherent action around a plot full of ludicrous improbabilities. And, yes, it probably will make a few buck.

Consider a Mills family outing. A picnic? No. A holiday celebration in which everyone gives thanks for his or her blessings? No, not that, either.

As seen in the new action movie Taken 2, a Mills family outing involves enough bullets to stock the invasion of several small countries.

It all begins innocently enough. Dad (Liam Neeson) invites his former wife (Framke Jansen) and his 19-year-old daughter (Maggie Grace) to join him in Istanbul for a restful getaway. This purported vacation quickly devolves into a wild adventure involving vengeful Albanian kidnappers, bruising car chases, ferocious gun play, exploding grenades, terrible torture and severe beatings.

And you thought the Mills family didn't know how to have a good time.

All of this mayhem transpires in a sequel to the 2008 hit in which Neeson portrayed Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent who rescued his daughter from brutal kidnappers who threatened to sell her into sex slavery.

Taken 2 reprises the first installment, adding a few variations on kidnapping twists. This time, Bryan and his former wife are kidnapped. After his daughter helps him escape, Bryan must return to save his former wife, who may be interested in re-establishing a relationship with him.

Neeson usually receives praise for bringing a sense of bulky gravitas to any film in which he chooses to act. He does that here, but you have to wonder when Neeson is going to apply his considerable talents to something more substantial than a blurry action film.

I say "blurry" because director Oliver Megaton -- like many before him -- seems to specialize in over-edited, incoherent action sequences that are supposed to make the pulse pound, but, at least for me, failed to gin up the requisite excitement.

Worse than that, the screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen revolves around a series of preposterous improbabilities.

So how is that different from dozens of other movies, you ask? Well, we may be willing to accept this kind of plotting in a Bond movie, but Taken 2 presents itself as a serious thriller, laying on as much faux urgency as possible. Given that, it becomes difficult not to giggle when a captured Bryan uses a mini-cell phone to give his daughter Kim complicated instructions on where to find him.

Rade Serbedzija shows up as the chief villain, an Albanian who wants to avenge the death of a son that Bryan killed in the last installment. Serbedzija is surrounded by as many swarthy looking men as possible, the movie's way of signaling danger.

At the picture's opening, Serbedzila's Murad stands over the graves of Albanians sent to their deaths by Mills, who we know is a finely honed killing machine.

"The dead cry out to us for justice," he says.

Maybe, but the living cry out for a movie that's more than a collection of action set pieces strung around a lamely conceived plot that raises two unequally weighted questions: Will all members of the Mills clan survive and will Kim ever pass the driver's test she failed back in Los Angeles before things went so terribly wrong?

Surviving a campus romance

Jesse (Josh Radner), an admissions officer for a New York city college, is 35-years-old and perhaps a trifle bored with his life. Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student at a Ohio university, is 19 and full of vigor. Jesse returns to that Ohio school -- his alma mater -- to honor a retiring English teacher (Richard Jenkins), a man he considered his mentor. Immersed in the hopeful environment of his youth, Jesse soon finds himself attracted to Zibby, who's bright, attractive and unusually comfortable with herself for a teen-ager. Written and directed by Radner, Liberal Arts may not graduate with honors, but it's by no means last in its class, either. Radner finds telling moments in a story that unfolds with easy-going sensitivity. An example: After retiring, Jenkins's character realizes that he's going to have a difficult time adjusting to a life of leisure. He asks the head of the English department to re-hire him, but discovers that he's already been replaced. It's not a major thrust of the story, but Jenkins shows us the pain felt by someone who's essentially surrendering his identity along with his job. Rounding out the cast are Zac Efron, as the kind of loose-canon figure who seems to turn up on every college campus, and John Magaro, as a bookish young student Jesse befriends. As Jesse wanders around his old college, he also remembers what it was like to be a student enamored of the romantic poets and awed by the teacher (Allison Janney) who taught him about them. Ultimately, Radner -- familiar from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother -- is interested in characters who are too smart to be jammed into a formula movie, but fit nicely into a low-key story that leaves you hoping everyone in it comes out unscathed.

'Butter,' an uneven comedy spread

This may be a week for small movies with something to offer. Not only does Liberal Arts open in Denver, but Butter also hits area screens. Butter doesn't always spread smoothly, but it definitely whips up laughs as it tells the improbable story of Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), a staunchly ambitious housewife who tries to replace her husband (Ty Burrell) as Iowa's butter-sculpting champion. Her husband Bob -- whose masterpiece was a life-sized butter sculpture of The Last Supper -- held the title for 15 years. The picture opens with the contest organizers asking the unbeatable Bob to retire so that someone else can have a shot at glory. Amiable Bob agrees, but Laura wants to keep the title in the family and decides to enter the race. First-time director Jim Field Smith -- working from a screenplay by Jason A. Micallef -- contrives to have Garner's Laura Pickler square off against an adorable and wise 10-year-old black girl (Yara Shahidi) who has been put into the care of foster parents played by Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone. Olivia Wilde turns up as stripper whose pole dancing awakens Bob's libido. Field's approach ranges from satire to straight-forward comedy, the latter finding representation in the work of Hugh Jackman in a small role as the owner of a car dealership who assists Laura in her devious ways. Garner, Shahidi and Corddry are responsible for the movie's high points -- of which there are more than a few. Put another way, Butter isn't fat with revelations, but it's blessed with a strong cast, and the movie's satirical sense gives it plenty of sharp edges, some of which cut it and some of which don't.